Puzzling flashes of insight | Sunday Observer

Puzzling flashes of insight

25 July, 2021

All great men are gifted with intuition. They know without reasoning or analogy, what they need to know - Alexis Carrel

Most of us have the ability to understand or know something because of a feeling rather than by considering the facts. The level of ability may differ from person to person. The lore of creativity is rife with many accounts of puzzling flashes of insight. Carl Gauss, an 18th century mathematician, worked on proving a theorem for four years with no solution. One day, the answer came to him as a sudden flash of light. However, he did not know what to call that thread of thought that produced a flash of insight after years of hard work. After two centuries we no longer find such a flash of insight as a puzzle. According to psychologists, one part of our brain operates constantly to find solutions to our problems. Sometimes, it gives us surprising solutions. This type of lower-brain neural machinery seems to work quite independently.

The celebrated physicist Albert Einstein said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” This is quite true as most of us try to solve problems using our rational mind. Although we can reason out at any time, the insights do not come when we are inundated with telephone calls, e-mails and visitors. If you work in a busy office, you will use your rational mind. You will note that brilliant insights will only come to you during a walk or when you are having a bath. Some people get insights when they are on a long ride or on vacation. In order to test the veracity of this statement you should go to a river bank or a big estate where you are not disturbed by other people. When you relax your body and mind, your creative spirit flourishes. Tight schedules and deadlines kill that spirit. Peter Schweitzer, a founder of the field of evaluating cryptography got brilliant ideas on a long walk or when he remained somewhere with his eyes closed.

Human history is full of instances when people got brilliant ideas. Dr. Rebecca Bingham who was working in a crowded hospital in Zimbabwe saw a patient on a stretcher about to be wheeled into the operating theatre. Although she did not know the medical history of the patient, she had a sudden sense of alarm. She wanted to check the patient’s heart. On examination the doctor found that the patient had a heart condition that could cause serious complications. When she alerted the surgeon, the operation was put off. A test revealed that the patient had a dangerous heart condition. When the surgeon asked her what made her check the patient’s heart, she said it was only a hunch.

Adaptive unconscious

Timothy D. Wilson, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia says such hunches are prompts from the adaptive unconscious. According to him, it is a mechanism in the brain that processes sensory information without your conscious mind being aware of it. Dr. Gary Klein, author of Intuition at work says such hidden powers of perception allow people to see the invisible.

Not only doctors but also ordinary people have remarkably accurate intuitions that seem to spring from nowhere. One day I attended an interview for the post of English lecturer at a leading institute. There were about ten people waiting to be interviewed. The first person who went in came out after a few minutes and went away. The second person to be interviewed was a middle-aged man. He was also called in and after a long time he came out smiling to himself. He did not leave the place but waited. I had a hunch that he had been selected. I got up from my seat and was about to leave the place when the elderly man called me. He asked me why I was leaving. I told him they have already selected a person for the post and I did not want to waste my time. He asked me how I came to know that somebody had been selected. I told him it was only a hunch.

Such hunches are known as mysterious flashes of insight, gut feelings, animal instinct, ESP (extra sensory perception) or even a sixth sense. Although some rationalists dismiss them as lucky guesses, psychologists uphold the power of intuition. In addition to doctors, nurses, firefighters, and even soldiers have reported many incidents where they leapt into action following intuitions. In psychology we learn that intuition is actually a two-step linking and checking process. At first we rapidly sort memories looking for a familiar pattern. Then we follow a plan that worked on a previous occasion. For instance, a child knocks against a kettle with boiling water and gets burnt. You at once get into action and hold the child’s hand under running water. You do so because you had done so on a previous occasion. Similarly, when a child remains silent for a long time and refuses to have his meals, his mother will have a gut feeling that he had been bullied by somebody in school.

Physical sensations

A recent study by the University of Iowa has revealed that your body is smarter than you think. This is because intuition warns you through physical sensations. Therefore, you should make it a point to listen to your body’s cues. Even when you wish to invest a large sum of money in a new finance company, you may feel an acute pain in your stomach. It is your gut feeling that warns you against the investment. A police officer in Los Angeles stopped a car driven by a teenager. However, the teenager approached the police officer with a gun in his hand. The police officer had a hunch that he would not shoot him. After a brief face-off the teenager surrendered.

Face reading seems to be closely related to intuition. Some people have a gift for reading ‘micro-expressions’on faces. Even when a man smiles with you, you will have a gut feeling that he is an honest person or a rogue. Face reading is done in a matter of minutes. After meeting someone for the first time, you will say, “He has an open countenance” or a “stern face.” Some faces have the unmistakable mark of honesty or dishonesty. An experienced detective can easily identify liars, pickpockets, thieves and murderers by looking at faces. Most of the information that forces us to make such comments is unconscious. Richard Webster, author of Face Reading says, “People make up to 90 per cent of their impressions of others within four minutes, and 60 to 80 per cent of that is obtained from our face and body language.” By the way, women are very good face readers. Honore de Balzac said, “A woman knows the face of the man she loves as a sailor knows the open sea.”

Gary Klein, author of Sources of Power, studied nurses in intensive care units, firefighters and other people who make decisions under pressure do not do so logically or systematically. They would simply size up a situation almost immediately and act drawing on their experience and intuition.


How do you get in touch with your intuition? The best way is to allocate a time slot when you can be alone. Just as solitude can give rise to creative thinking, it can help us to connect to our deepest inner wisdom. Introverted people are found to be highly intuitive. Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, taking time for solitude can help you to engage in deeper thoughts and reconnect with yourself.

Even in the developed West, meditation and mindfulness practices have been tried out to tap into your intuition. Mindfulness can help you to filter out mental clutter and weigh your options objectively. It can also connect you to your intuition by boosting self-knowledge. A recent study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science shows that mindfulness can help you to understand your own personality in a non-judgmental way.

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